Here's something I was previously reluctant to admit: I play most games on an easy – if not the easiest – difficulty. I'll often start out with good intentions on medium or the closest default, but if I reach a point where I'm really struggling then I'll usually turn it down a notch.
Before we explore my reasons for that, let's consider why it used to be my dirty little secret. It has a lot to do with pride, of course, and in my case that was connected with my job. For several years after I hit employable age I worked part-time at either Game or Gamestation, and when I started I knew very little about the products I was supposed to sell, which left me with quite the case of imposter syndrome. To both customers and my fellow staff, I pretended a far more advanced knowledge and aptitude than I actually had, trying to defend my right to call myself a “gamer”.
As the years passed I gained more knowledge and became more comfortable with my relative lack of skill, but even now I find myself occasionally feeling ashamed of my pitiful gamerscore or reluctance to play online. It probably has something to do with my gender, too; I feel like I have more to lose if I'm found out, a “fake geek girl” who acts as though she knows about video games but probably couldn't beat you at Call of Duty*. But more generally, we humans are rarely happy to admit defeat. My boyfriend, for instance, gives the impression he'd rather stop playing and do something else than lower the difficulty when he gets stuck.
So why am I content to do just that when I could probably get there in the end if I just kept at it for long enough? One main reason is the need for speed. If I'm playing a game for review, then I'll check out other difficulties to get a feel for the range but mostly stick to easy so that I can rush through the levels or story, and experience as much of the game as I can. Even if I'm not playing a game for work and it's just for fun, I'm often keen to avoid spending too much time on the same bit. In both cases, I don't want to waste my time doing the same thing over and over again without any sense of progress or achievement.
Another reason I don't mind that I often experience the most aptitudinally dumbed-down version of a game is that I'm not playing for the sake of practice. I'm not trying to build up skills, not really, and that's mostly because I don't play online. Growing up, it was always enough for me to be able to beat my brothers and sisters, and they're all younger than me anyway. And nowadays, I'm far more likely to play cooperative than competitive multiplayer.
But a lot of people do seem to want games to provide them with a way to become more skilled. I understand the desire for a little challenge – after all, without obstacles you don't really have what you could call a game – but when it starts to feel like you're training for something I lose interest. So why do others revel in playing on the hardest difficulty, going through with that training in order to improve the particular skill set needed for that particular game?
Building skills of any kind gives us a sense of accomplishment. The ability to play a musical instrument or fold origami models is rarely relevant to our careers, and yet we feel productive and proud for having taken the time to learn. In the case of video games – thought by many to be a particularly irrelevant hobby – we may be using that Freudian defence mechanism of rationalisation: how can we be wasting our time if we are using that time to improve a part of ourselves (if only a part that is often considered inapplicable to “the real world”)?
In this way, “hardcore” gamers are using the concept of difficulty to separate themselves from the “casual” lot, those people who play only as something to do between sections of real life, in transit or during a particularly boring conversation. Those people don't want challenge, because they need to be continuously stimulated for those few minutes of play and not interrupted by a “game over”. But hardcore gamers play “real games”, ones that filter out those people who haven't been playing their whole lives. It's elitism, which is something often found among groups who've found themselves cast at the bottom of the social ladder.
I've noticed this recently with people Tweeting pictures of their complete collections of achievements for famously difficult game Dark Souls. “Look,” they are saying, “This game is known to require skill and perseverance to conquer, and I have conquered it. I have earned my right to membership of an elite group.”
I've never played Dark Souls, for the very reason that the only thing I've ever heard about it is that it's so hard. If it had multiple difficulty options I might have given it a try, testing the harder difficulty so as to understand the fuss and then – with no intention of spending 100 or so hours in multiple cycles of repetition – switching it back down to a level with which I was comfortable. And yet, on the other hand, adding an easier difficulty would certainly weaken what Dark Souls has become; it may not have that wider appeal that so many developers want these days, but it is something of a cult icon.
In my case, I find that there are different kinds of challenge. FTL is notorious for its difficulty too, and yet I've actually played that one; in fact, I love the game. I suspect it has something to do with its structure: FTL is a roguelike, and so death is permanent. You might think that would make matters even worse, but in reality it's refreshing. When you die, you cannot just repeat the same event again and again until you've trained yourself to respond correctly. Instead, you get to start again and play an entirely different game.
That insistence that a player improve her ability before she is allowed to progress might be useful material for a Dara O'Briain comedy sketch, but it can mark a failure to be inclusive to more than just middle-aged comedians. Consider the large percentage of people who have some kind of disability, some of which restrict physicality. If a game gives you no option other than training your reflexes to a certain level, and yet you have a biological reason that prevents you from attaining that level, then you are being told that you are unwelcome. Does it seem fair that people with conditions ranging from dyspraxia to cerebral palsy be forced to play only simple games? Are we justified in forbidding them from experiencing a popular game's characters and story just because they can't pass quick-time events?
The whole reputation of games as skilful objects reeks of exclusivity in a more general sense too. I've found this with some of my friends, especially female ones, for whom one of the reasons they are reluctant to explore games any further than things like The Sims and Mario Kart is the perceived barrier to entry. It is difficult enough to convince these people that learning how to simultaneously move two analog sticks will be worth it in the long run; video games aren't doing themselves any favours if they impose high standards on players' reflexes and coordination from the get-go.
But of course, I'd never suggest that all games should be easy throughout. Instead, I'm with Jason Schreier. Really, most games – by which I mean those that don't need to make the player struggle in order to make an artistic point, of which I would argue there are relatively few – should incorporate a “Very Easy” mode. It works the other way, too. Players who want to be able to increase the difficulty of a game, so as to get more out of the experience, should also be given the option. The Sims 3, for example, is a game that – after more than a decade with the series – I'm actually quite good at, and now that I've perfected the art of raising a rich and happy virtual family I've started to explore player-created challenges to give myself a little more to strive for.
Maybe one day I'll actually get to the end of a difficult game like FTL. And if I do, that accomplishment will obviously make me feel great. But I already feel pretty good about all of the games I have finished, and that's something that just wouldn't have been possible were it not for playing on easy.
* I did actually beat my boyfriend at Call of Duty 4 once, and then – much like when my brother taught me to play the Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game and I managed to win my first game – I had the presence of mind to quit while I was ahead.